West Pokot, Kenya – More than 30 people are feared dead after massive landslides struck three villages in West Pokot Saturday.
Most of those affected were sleeping when the ground beneath them began moving and the landslides buried them in their homes.
Some 15 bodies had been retrieved and others were still missing by Saturday evening in an incident Governor John Lonyangapuo said was the worst natural disaster to ever hit the region.
The landslides left a trail of destruction and bereaved families trying to come to terms with the tragedy.
West Pokot County Commissioner Apollo Okello said a search was ongoing for the missing even as the number of the dead seemed likely to rise last night.
“So far, 15 bodies have been found and more than 20 are missing. We suspect that they are dead,” Mr Okello told the Sunday Nation.
Mr Okello said seven members of the same family were buried alive in Nyarkulian village. The seven were among 17 people believed to have been swept away.
He added that more people might have been trapped in the avalanche, saying a better equipped rescue team was heading to the area.
“We are struggling to reach all places. All the roads to the villages have been cut off. The numbers might shoot up because some people cannot be accounted for,” he said.
Dozens of others were injured after the landslides hit Nyarkulian, Muino and Parua villages on Friday night following a huge downpour.
Most of those who died were sleeping when the ground beneath them began moving.
They were buried alive and it was not until yesterday morning that the true picture emerged.
Dozens of people were still waiting for news of their loved ones last evening as rescue efforts continued.
Rescue efforts were largely carried out using rudimentary tools because rescuers could not access the area after flash floods swept away a bridge at Sebit, near Ortum Centre. All roads heading to Nyarkulian and Muino were also rendered impassable.
River Muruny also burst its banks. The destruction of the bridge cut off the Kitale-Lodwar road, making it impossible for senior government officials to reach the affected villages.
Residents used bare hands to search for and retrieve bodies and survivors from the mounds of soil.
Those who were critically injured were rushed to nearby health centres as efforts were made to fly them to Kapenguria Referral Hospital and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret.
President Uhuru Kenyatta termed the landslide “devastating”, saying it had robbed the country of “over 30 dear Kenyans and led to massive destruction of property including key infrastructure such as roads and bridges.”
“My thoughts and prayers, and those of our entire nation are with families, friends and relatives. Please accept my heartfelt condolences,” he added.
He ordered the deployment of rescue personnel from the Kenya Defence Forces, the National Police Service and Special Programmes to the affected region.
The President further directed regional commissioners in flood and landslide-prone regions in the country to work very closely with security and humanitarian teams to ensure citizens in these areas are urgently moved to safer grounds.
Deputy President William Ruto also expressed his sympathies to families of the dead and the injured and asked affected residents to be on the lookout for other landslides.
ODM leader Raila Odinga said: “My heartfelt condolences to the families of West Pokot where many people have unfortunately lost their lives in a landslide. We stand together in prayer and wish quick recovery to the injured and comfort to those searching for their loved ones who are still missing,” he said.
Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i said the government had deployed the military and police choppers to help in the rescue efforts.
Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya said the loss of lives was a big blow to the country.
Prof Lonyangapuo, who was stranded at Sebit together with a huge county team that was heading to the villages, said rescue efforts might be hampered by the deteriorating weather.
“Most roads have been rendered impassable and bridges swept away. This incident is the worst in the county’s history. We are doing all we can to avert more deaths,” he said.
The governor called on the army and the Kenya Red Cross Society to help the affected families and erect tents to accommodate them: “We need help because the situation is now getting out of hand. The road linking Kitale to lodwar is cut off completely,” he said.
Area Chief Joel Bulali said dozens of people were still beneath the rubble left by the landslide.
Julius Kebisha, a teacher, said his son was still trapped in the rubble and was feared dead. His son had just received his KCPE exams results and was preparing to join Form One next year.
“My wife and my daughter have been rescued and taken to Kapenguria referral hospital. I am mourning my son who was going to save lives. He was swept away a few metres from our home,” he said.
Mr Chemuruto Yopokapel was desolate last evening after his three sons were killed by the landslide. He said they asleep when the tragedy struck.
Their bodies were recovered Saturday morning.
Mr Yopokapel however managed to rescue his wife and two daughters.
“I scampered to save the lives of the rest of my family members but I couldn’t go back to the house to save the three boys aged 6, 8 and 10 years. I fell several times as stones rained on me and I gave up on the way. I wish I could have saved my children,” he mourned.
The 40-year-old man said some of those he rescued were critically injured.
“I am stranded. My house, my animals and everything we had were all swept way. This place is dangerous. We want to be relocated,” he said.
Mr Raphael Pkolowo said he was at Nyarkulian centre at 11pm when it started raining heavily. He had left his family members at home but returned to find it buried in mud.
“Four people were buried alive as I watched. A father, mother and their two children. One of the babies was rescued but it was so painful. I escaped death narrowly,” he said.
A resident of Muruny area, Mr Nicholas Kibet, said the downpour started at midnight and caused havoc in the area.
“It rained continuously for 12 hours and we were unable to get out of our houses. Some of the people are still missing,” he said.
The devastation in West Pokot is the latest in a series of mudslides that have hit various parts of the country in recent years, killing hundreds of people and leaving serious devastation.
The government’s response over the years has been to urge affected people to “to move to safer ground”.
But residents blame the government, saying it does not provide them with alternative areas to stay when they are asked to move.